Philippines’ Estrada confident of acquittal


MANILA — Deposed Philippine President Joseph Estrada is confident he will be acquitted of plunder charges when an anti-corruption court delivers its verdict within the next week or so.

The former film star, overthrown in an army backed revolt in 2001, has been on trial for six years accused of stealing up to US$80 million from state coffers while in power. A verdict is expected before Sept. 15.

“I am innocent,” Estrada told Reuters in a telephone interview from his villa, about 50 km (31 miles) east of the capital, where he has been detained since 2001.

“I am confident that I will be acquitted if the court would only base their decision on the merits of the case. They have failed to present any strong evidence to support these fabricated charges.”

Estrada faces life imprisonment if found guilty and the government fears that poor voters, who swept him into office by a record margin in 1998, will riot in Manila.

But if the 70-year-old renowned bon viveur is found innocent it will rattle President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who was Estrada’s vice president and was propelled to power on the strength of the corruption charges.

Arroyo, who is still deeply unpopular due to lingering allegations of electoral fraud, has put around 8,000 soldiers and police officers on standby ahead of the verdict.

Estrada, who is a figurehead for anti-Arroyo groups, has complained that his telephone conversations are being monitored.

Renowned for his “midnight cabinet” of drinking and gambling buddies while president, Estrada says the mass street protests that drove him from office were engineered by the country’s elite and a group of Catholic bishops and generals.

“I have been offered twice by this government to leave the country and live in exile in the country of my own choice,” he said.

“They asked me to leave, no charges to be filed against me as long as I step down, sign a paper that I am resigning. When I declined the offer, I was deluged with these charges.”

During his detention, Estrada has built a presidential museum on the grounds of his estate. During this year’s congressional election, opposition candidates called in for photo opportunities and endorsements.

“If I was guilty, I could have accepted the offers and left the country. But, I wanted to stay here and fight for my honor and dignity. I wanted to clear by name but I hope the government would give me a fair and square fight.”

Government sources have said Arroyo would be prepared to pardon Estrada if he is found guilty but the former actor has said he would reject such an offer.

Estrada, who has fathered children with several women, said his real worry was the health of his 102-year old mother.

He dismissed rumors that he was fretting that a verdict would be handed down on Sept. 13, considered an unlucky date.

“I don’t believe in unlucky numbers. I got my first acting award on my 13th movie.”